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Flickr User Frost Museum

A Treasure Trove of Parasitic Wasps

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Flickr User Frost Museum

For the last three decades, scientists in the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste (ACG), a roughly 1000-square-kilometer chunk of forest in northwestern Costa Rica, have been inventorying and rearing hundreds of thousands of caterpillars. With the help of local apprentices, they comb the forests for the critters, pluck them from plants and the ground, and then string them up in plastic bags in a barn. Then, they watch and wait while the caterpillars pupate to see what emerges. 

Sometimes, it’s a moth or a butterfly, exactly as it should be. Other times, though, it’s a wasp whose mother laid her eggs in the caterpillar before the researchers put it in its bag. After hatching, the wasp larvae devour their host from the inside out and emerge from the corpse. 

There are plenty of parasitoid wasps like this out there (some of which we’ve covered before), and last month the researchers announced that there are plenty more where those came from. Their latest paper describes and names almost 200 new species of the wasp genus Apanteles—which until recently had only three known species! Clearly, the team says, scientists have been underestimating the diversity of parasitoid wasps and, as more and more parts of the world are as well-cataloged as the ACG, the total number of species could be mind-boggling. 

Each of these new wasps is only about as long as a fingernail, and most of them are very choosy when it comes to their caterpillar hosts. The researchers found that around 90 percent of the species parasitize just a few (or even a single) type of caterpillar, suggesting the subfamily they come from is more specialized than anyone knew. 

As I wrote at The Week, parasites are not a very popular conservation cause, but many of them are ecologically important. By turning caterpillars and other insects into zombies and living nurseries and then killing them, Apanteles and other parasitoid wasps provide free pest control. In some parts of the world, people release swarms of them to control problem insects. The researchers in the ACG hope that by getting local people involved in their studies, they can show Costa Ricans the value of these wasps and have more allies for protecting their habitat. As a thank you to their many local lay assistants in the field, the team named many of the new species after them—resulting in beautifully tongue-twisting Latin-Latin American hybrid names like Apanteles jorgehernandezi, A. monicachavarriae, A. raulsolorsanoi, A. robertoespinozai, and A. yolandarojasae. 

Primary photo courtesy the Frost Museum flickr page; cc.

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Focus Features
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Animals
25 Shelter Dogs Who Made It Big
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Focus Features

If you’ve been thinking of adding a four-legged friend to your brood and are deciding whether a shelter dog is right for you, consider this: Some of history’s most amazing pooches—from four-legged movie stars to heroic rescue dogs—were found in animal shelters. In honor of Adopt-a-Shelter-Dog Month, here are 25 shelter dogs who made it big.

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technology
This High-Tech Material Can Change Shape Like an Octopus
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iStock

Octopuses can do some pretty amazing things with their skin, like “see” light, resist the pull of their own sticky suction cups, and blend in seamlessly with their surroundings. That last part now has the U.S. Army interested, as Co.Design reports. The military branch’s research office has funded the development a new type of morphing material that works like an octopus’s dynamic skin.

The skin of an octopus is covered in small, muscular bumps called papillae that allow them to change textures in a fraction of a second. Using this mechanism, octopuses can mimic coral, rocks, and even other animals. The new government-funded research—conducted by scientists at Cornell University—produced a device that works using a similar principle.

“Technologies that use stretchable materials are increasingly important, yet we are unable to control how they stretch with much more sophistication than inflating balloons,” the scientists write in their study, recently published in the journal Science. “Nature, however, demonstrates remarkable control of stretchable surfaces.”

The membrane of the stretchy, silicone material lays flat most of the time, but when it’s inflated with air, it can morph to form almost any 3D shape. So far, the technology has been used to imitate rocks and plants.

You can see the synthetic skin transform from a two-dimensional pad to 3D models of objects in the video below:

It’s easy to see how this feature could be used in military gear. A soldier’s suit made from material like this could theoretically provide custom camouflage for any environment in an instant. Like a lot of military technology, it could also be useful in civilian life down the road. Co.Design writer Jesus Diaz brings up examples like buttons that appear on a car's dashboard only when you need them, or a mixing bowl that rises from the surface of the kitchen counter while you're cooking.

Even if we can mimic the camouflage capabilities of cephalopods, though, other impressive superpowers, like controlling thousands of powerful suction cups or squeezing through spaces the size of a cherry tomato, are still the sole domain of the octopus. For now.

[h/t Co.Design]

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